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One Need Look No Further Than John Yoo for Evidence of Executive Lawbreaking

The explosive inspectors general report released on Friday makes one thing increasingly clear: the Bush White House knew that it was probably breaking the law.

From the report itself, John Yoo’s Office of Legal Counsel memo — and the lightning-fast reporting of Spencer Ackerman, Marc Ambinder and others on Friday — we now know that President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, aware that ignoring the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution might come back to bite them later, sought the drafting of a legal opinion that would approve the president’s secret surveillance program and shield them from later attack.

The fact that the White House sought the assistance of Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo in the OLC, though is itself evidence that the White House was trying to get around, rather than comply with, the law.

As I’ve noted before, legal memos justifying an unreasonable or inaccurate legal position don’t necessarily provide a “golden shield” for the executive.

Yoo, after all, was known when he was hired as the Berkeley law professor and staunch Federalist Society member who held theories on executive power that were far outside the legal mainstream. And the memos and academic analyses he then proceeded to write were so extreme and so mischaracterized law and history in an effort to reconcile conservative “originalist” principles with his own aggressive view of an all-powerful president as Commander-in-Chief that they’ve been characterized as an “outrageous theory of presidental dictatorship” by Yale University law professor Jack Balkin and as “simply hooey” by Marty Lederman at Georgetown (now in the Office of Legal Counsel in the Obama administration).

The inspectors general report details how Yoo and the administration ignored parts of the FISA law that conflicted with his theory, for example, and made the outrageous argument that a warrantless search doesn’t violate the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on “unreasonable” searches and seizures because it can’t be “unreasonable” for the president to authorize it in wartime. Why it’s “reasonable” to prevent even secret judicial review of such searches is never explained.

For an academic to hold extreme views of executive power, of course, is arguably a matter of academic freedom, and even a form of creative theorizing that one might admire. (Although some of Yoo’s Berkeley colleagues, such as economist Brad DeLong, among others, have described his theories as reaching so far beyond the bounds of creative academic theorizing as to be simply dishonest and undeserving of that protection.)

But Yoo’s memos at OLC were not part of an academic exercise; they were making policy. Setting aside for a moment the potential culpability of Yoo himself, the more important point here is that, as the inspectors general report makes clear, the White House specifically sought him out and excluded his superiors, ignoring the usual chain of command in the Justice Department, apparently because they knew that John Yoo would give them the legal opinions that they wanted to hear.

That is not the purpose of the Office of Legal Counsel, as Dawn Johnsen, the Obama nominee to head that office has repeatedly made clear, along with more than a dozen other alumni of that office.

As Johnsen wrote in a law review article describing the ten “Guidelines” that should govern the Office of Legal Counsel: “OLC should provide an accurate and honest appraisal of applicable law, even if that advice will constrain the administration’s pursuit of desired policies … In short, OLC must be prepared to say no to the President.”

That the president and vice president apparently chose someone who they knew in advance would not say no to the president is more than an abuse of that legal office; it strongly suggests an intentional and unlawful abuse of executive power.

The latest news accounts that Attorney General Eric Holder is leaning toward appointing an independent prosecutor suggest he may finally be starting to reach the same conclusion.

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